Sanger was an American birth control activist, an advocate of certain
aspects of eugenics, and the founder of the American Birth Control
League (which eventually became Planned Parenthood). Initially meeting
with fierce opposition to her ideas, Sanger gradually won the support
of the public and the courts for a woman's right to decide how and
when she will bear children. Though her selective support of eugenics
was less well received, Margaret Sanger was instrumental in opening
the way to universal access to birth control.
Sanger was born in Corning, New York. Her mother was a devout
Roman Catholic who went through 18 pregnancies (with 11 live births)
before dying of tuberculosis. After graduating from Claverack
College in Hudson, Sanger trained as a nurse and worked for ten
years in the affluent New York suburb of White Plains. In 1902,
she married William Sanger. Although stricken by tuberculosis,
she gave birth to a son the following year, followed in subsequent
years by a second son and a daughter who died in childhood.
1912, Sanger and her family moved to New York City, where she
went to work in the poverty-stricken East Side slums of Manhattan.
That same year, she also started writing a column for the New
York Call entitled "What Every Girl Should Know." Distributing
a pamphlet, Family Limitation, to poor women, Sanger repeatedly
risked scandal and imprisonment by acting in defiance of the Comstock
Law of 1873 which outlawed as obscene the dissemination of contraceptive
information and devices.
1914, Sanger launched The Woman Rebel, a newspaper advocating
birth control. She also separated from William Sanger in 1913.
In 1916, Sanger opened a family planning and birth control clinic
in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, the first of its
kind in the United States. It was raided by the police and Sanger
was arrested for violating the post office's obscenity laws by
sending birth control information by mail.
fled to Europe to escape prosecution. There, she had an affair
with the famous science-fiction author, H. G. Wells. The following
year, she returned to the U.S. and resumed her activities, launching
the periodical The Birth Control Review and Birth Control News.
She also contributed articles on health for the Socialist Party
paper, The Call.
1916, Sanger published "What Every Girl Should Know,"
which was later widely distributed as one of the E. Haldeman-Julius
"Little Blue Books." It not only provided basic information
about such topics as menstruation, but also promoted an understanding
of sexuality in adolescents. It was followed in 1917 by What Every
Mother Should Know. That year, Sanger was sent to the workhouse
for "creating a public nuisance."
founded the American Birth Control League (ABCL) in 1921 with
Lothrop Stoddard and C. C. Little. In 1922, she traveled to Japan
to work with Japanese feminist Kato Shidzue promoting birth control;
over the next several years, she would return another six times
for this purpose. In this year, she also married oil tycoon James
Noah H. Slee. In 1923, under the auspices of the ABCL, she established
the Clinical Research Bureau.
was the first legal birth control clinic in the U.S. (renamed
Margaret Sanger Research Bureau in her honor in 1940). That year,
she also formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation
for Birth Control and served as its president of until its dissolution
in 1937 after birth control under medical supervision was legalized
in many states. In 1927, Sanger helped organize the first World
Population Conference in Geneva.
1928, Sanger resigned as the president of the ABCL. Two years
later, she became president of the Birth Control International
Information Center. In 1937, Sanger became chairperson of the
Birth Control Council of America and launched two publications,
The Birth Control Review and The Birth Control News. From 1939
to 1942, she was an honorary delegate of the Birth Control Federation
of America. From 1952 to 1959, she served as president of the
International Planned Parenthood Federation; at the time, the
largest private international family planning organization.
the 1960 presidential elections, Sanger was dismayed by candidate
John F. Kennedy's position on birth control (Kennedy did not believe
birth control should be a matter of government policy). She threatened
to leave the country if Kennedy were elected, but evidently reconsidered
after Kennedy won the election.
the early 1960s, Sanger promoted the use of the newly available
birth control pill. She toured Europe, Africa, and Asia, lecturing
and helping to establish clinics.
died in 1966 in Tucson, Arizona at age 87 only a few months after
the landmark Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized
birth control for married couples in the US. It was the apex of
her fifty-year struggle.
books include Woman and the New Race (1920), Happiness in Marriage
(1926), and an autobiography (1938).
Although Sanger was greatly influenced by her father, a freethinker,
her mother's death left her with a deep sense of dissatisfaction
concerning her own and society's understanding of women's health
and childbirth. She also criticized the censorship of her message
about sexuality and contraceptives by the civil and religious
authorities, justified on moral grounds, as an effort by men to
keep women in submission.
atheist, Sanger attacked the Christian faith for its opposition
to her message, blaming it for obscurantism and insensitivity
to women's concerns. Sanger was particularly critical of the lack
of awareness of the dangers of and the scarcity of treatment opportunities
for venereal disease among women. She claimed that these social
ills were the result of the male establishment's intentionally
keeping women in ignorance. Sanger also deplored the contemporary
absence of regulations requiring registration of people diagnosed
with venereal diseases (which she contrasted with mandatory registration
of those with infectious diseases such as measles).
was also an avowed socialist, blaming the evils of contemporary
capitalism for the unsatisfactory conditions of the young working-class
women. Her views on this issue are evident in the last pages of
What Every Girl Should Know.
While Sanger's understanding of and practical approach to human
physiology were progressive for her times, her thoughts on the
psychology of human sexuality place her squarely in the pre-Freudian
19th century. Birth control, it would appear, was for her more
a means to limit the undesirable side-effects of sex than a way
of liberating men and women to enjoy it.
What Every Girl Should Know, she wrote: "Every normal man
and woman has the power to control and direct his sexual impulse.
Men and woman who have it in control and constantly use their
brain cells thinking deeply, are never sensual." Sexuality,
for her, was a kind of weakness, and surmounting it indicated
sex cells are placed in a part of the anatomy for the essential
purpose of easily expelling them into the female for the purpose
of reproduction, there are other elements in the sexual fluid
which are the essence of blood, nerve, brain, and muscle. When
redirected in to the building and strengthening of these, we find
men or women of the greatest endurance greatest magnetic power.
A girl can waste her creative powers by brooding over a love affair
to the extent of exhausting her system, with the results not unlike
the effects of masturbation and debauchery.”
thoughts on human development were also laden with racism:
is said that a fish as large as a man has a brain no larger than
the kernel of an almond. In all fish and reptiles where there
is no great brain development, there is also no conscious sexual
control. The lower down in the scale of human development we go
the less sexual control we find. It is said that the aboriginal
Australian, the lowest known species of the human family, just
a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development, has so
little sexual control that police authority alone prevents him
from obtaining sexual satisfaction on the streets.
Sanger also considered masturbation dangerous:
my experience as a trained nurse while attending persons afflicted
with various and often revolting diseases, no matter what their
ailments, I have never found any one so repulsive as the chronic
masturbator. It would be difficult not to fill page upon page
of heartrending confessions made by young girls, whose lives were
blighted by this pernicious habit, always begun so innocently,
for even after they have ceased the habit, they find themselves
incapable of any relief in the natural act. [...] Perhaps the
greatest physical danger to the chronic masturbator is the inability
to perform the sexual act naturally.
For her, masturbation was not just a physical act, it was a mental
the boy or girl past puberty, we find one of the most dangerous
forms of masturbation, i.e. mental masturbation, which consists
of forming mental pictures, or thinking obscene or voluptuous
pictures. This form is considered especially harmful to the brain,
for the habit becomes so fixed that it is almost impossible to
free the thoughts from lustful pictures.”
Sanger was a proponent of eugenics, a social philosophy (criticized
as a pseudoscience) claiming that human hereditary traits can
be improved through social intervention. Methods of social intervention
(targeted at those seen as "genetically unfit") advocated
by eugenists have included selective breeding, sterilization,
and euthanasia. In 1932, for example, Sanger argued for:
stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that
grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose
inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted
advances in biology and genetics, it has become clear that the
policies Sanger advocated to prevent the disabled from reproducing
would in practice be ineffective. However, in the early 20th century,
the eugenics movement, in which Sanger was prominently involved,
gained strong support in the United States. As a result of the
efforts of American eugenists, "eugenics practitioners coercively
sterilized some 60,000 Americans, barred the marriage of thousands,
forcibly segregated thousands in 'colonies,' and persecuted untold
numbers in ways we are just learning."
has also been argued that the work of the American eugenics movement
was directly responsible for the rise of the Nazi eugenics programs
(such as the T-4 Euthanasia Program) and the Holocaust. Edwin
America’s eugenic movement spread to Germany as well, where
it caught the fascination of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi movement...
in 1934 the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted a prominent American
eugenicist as saying, "The Germans are beating us at our
for Mararet Sanger's contend that her eugenic policies tied in
with her primary cause of birth control, which she saw as a means
to prevent "dysgenic" children from being born and living
a disadvantaged life. While many leaders in the eugenics movement
were calling for active euthanasia of the "unfit," Sanger
did not share such views. Edwin Black writes:
[William] Robinson's book, Eugenics, Marriage and Birth Control
(Practical Eugenics), he advocated gassing the children of the
plain words, Robinson insisted: 'The best thing would be to gently
chloroform these children or give them a dose of potassium cyanide.'
Margaret Sanger was well aware that her fellow birth control advocates
were promoting lethal chambers, but she herself rejected the idea
completely. 'Nor do we believe,' wrote Sanger in Pivot of Civilization,
'that the community could or should send to the lethal chamber
the defective progeny resulting from irresponsible and unintelligent
Sanger remains a controversial figure. While she is widely credited
as a leader of the modern birth control movement, and remains
an iconic figure for the American reproductive rights movements,
she also is reviled by some who condemn her as "an abortion
advocate" (perhaps unfairly so: abortion was illegal during
Sanger's lifetime and Planned Parenthood did not then support
the procedure or lobby for its legalisation) or those who disagree
in principle with Eugenics.
opposed to Planned Parenthood and/or legalized abortion have frequently
targeted Sanger for her views, attributing her efforts to promote
birth control to a desire to "purify" the human race
through eugenics, and even to eliminate minority races by placing
birth control clinics in minority neighborhoods. For this reason,
Sanger is often quoted selectively or out of context by detractors
(a practice known as quote mining), and her history and involvement
with socialism and eugenics have often been rationalized or even
ignored by her defenders and biographers (a practice known as
spin doctoring). Despite the allegations of racism, Sanger's work
with minorities earned the respect of civil rights leaders such
as Martin Luther King Jr. In their biographical article about
Margaret Sanger, Planned Parenthood notes:
1930, Sanger opened a family planning clinic in Harlem that sought
to enlist support for contraceptive use and to bring the benefits
of family planning to women who were denied access to their city's
health and social services. Staffed by a black physician and black
social worker, the clinic was endorsed by The Amsterdam News (the
powerful local newspaper), the Abyssinian Baptist Church, the
Urban League, and the black community's elder statesman, W.E.B.
Sanger's views on abortion (like many of her opinions) changed
throughout the course of her life, in her early years she was
acutely aware of the problem of abortion, typically self-induced
or with the aid of a midwife. Her opposition to abortion stemmed
primarily from a concern for the dangers to the mother, and less
so from legal concerns or the welfare of the unborn child. She
wrote in a 1916 edition of Family Limitation, "no one can
doubt that there are times when an abortion is justifiable,"
though she framed this in the context of her birth control advocacy,
adding that "abortions will become unnecessary when care
is taken to prevent conception. (Care is) the only cure for abortions."
Sanger consistently regarded birth control and abortion as the
responsibility and burden first and foremost of women, and as
matters of law, medicine and public policy second.
the problems of eugenics were not anticipated and Sanger ultimately
did not support forced euthanasia (such as the Nazi use of gas
chambers), she strongly supported the movement that led to this.
The effects of the eugenics movement can still be seen today;
in China, laws such as "Maternal and Infant Health Care Law"
have enforced many aspects of eugenics. As a result, the numbers
of males is far greater than females because of their "one
child" policy and the ability to abort the non-prefered sex.